The Crime Writer: A Review

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Jill Dawson has a knack for writing about factual people but in a fictional way, she takes fragments from people’s lives and works them into a novel. The Great Lover is a brilliant example of this, and she manages to capture her protagonist’s unique tone in the narrative while maintaining a seamless writing style.

I was intrigued by Dawson’s latest book, The Crime Writer, mostly because I fell in love with the cover. Based on an episode of Patricia Highsmith’s life, during which time she lived in Sussex and was having an affair with a married woman, Sam. It is the mid-1960s and period of excitement and progression, but Highsmith’s life seems stuck in a rut, an empty place filled with promises from her married lover, being let down, clandestine meetings, and angst filled phone-calls. A nosy journalist comes to interview her, and Highsmith’s reluctance only fuels her curiosity. But then one night changes everything between Highsmith, Sam, and the lover’s husband, and her life begins to imitate her crime novels.

I wish I knew Dawson’s writing technique, for she has layered the story with a light touch and the complexities of a Hitchcock plot. The words creep like shadows across the page, and the reader is kept in suspense despite being let in on the crime. You will hold your breath until the last page, it is that good!

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Everyone Brave is Forgiven

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We live you see, and even a mule like me must learn. I was brought up to believe that everyone brave is forgiven, but in wartime courage is cheap and clemency out of season. – Mary North

Many of my book reviews end up in The Lady (click here if you care to know what I’ve been reading) but some also appear on The Mitford Society. I try to keep the genres relevant to what we Mitties might enjoy, and so I decided to share Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave with you.

Based on a true story, Chris Cleave’s plot was inspired by his grandparents love affair during the Blitz. Mary North, a reluctant debutante who dreams of becoming a spy, resolves to stay in London and teach at an inner-city school. Although many of the children have been evacuated, some have been returned because the countryside ‘doesn’t want them’, or because they are not white and, or, British. What good is it to teach a child to count, Mary wonders, ‘if you do not show him that he counts for something?’

Meanwhile, Tom Shaw decides to give the war a miss, until his flatmate Alistair enlists, and the conflict can no longer be avoided. In love with Mary, Tom finds that he would do anything for her, but when she meets Alistair it is love at first sight.

Set to the backdrop of war torn London and the Siege of Malta, the lives of Mary, Tom and Alistair – entangled in lies, violence, passion and friendship – will never be the same again.

A lot of reviews have compared Everyone Brave is Forgiven with Atonement (the best bits, they said) and I can see the strong parallels between Mary and Celia, and how their characters evolve. Like Atonement, it is character driven and a slow read, especially in the beginning as the story and its protagonists negotiate their way in a dangerous, new world, and lose their innocence in the interim. Aside from the racial views of the day – the alienation, the ignorance – Mary must also learn to adapt to the class divide as she ventures from the comfort zone of her upbringing. So, there are a lot of elements at play, both at the centre of the plot and as subplots, weaving several golden threads through the story.

It is evident that the story is a personal one for Chris Cleave, and I think that is apparent within the text – he has crafted strong and sympathetic characters, beautiful prose, and an engaging plot.

 

 

Beatrice and Benedick by Marina Fiorato

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Hidden in the language of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedy Much Ado About Nothing, are several clues to an intriguing tale. It seems that the witty lovers Beatrice and Benedick had a previous youthful love affair which ended bitterly. But how did they meet, why did they part, and what brought them together again?

Marina Fiorato transports the reader to Messina, Sicily; the year is 1588 and Beatrice of Mantua comes to the court of her uncle Leonato, to be companion to his daughter, Hero. That fateful summer, Spanish lordling Don Pedro visits for a month-long sojourn on the island with his regiment. In his company is the young soldier Benedick of Padua. Benedick and Beatrice begin to wage their merry war of wit, which masks the reality that they dance a more serious measure, and the two are soon deeply in love. But the pair are cruelly parted by natural disaster and man-made misunderstanding. Oceans apart, divided by war and slander, Beatrice and Benedick begin their ten-year odyssey back to Messina and each other.

Incorporating Shakespearean language with modern day nuances, Fiorato’s novel is an updated version of the classic play. A scenic adventure from sunlit Sicily to the Armada fleet and the Renaissance cities of the north, she offers us a tour of the unspoilt splendour of Italy from the past. Beautifully written with rich descriptions, Beatrice and Benedick’s back stories are deeply complex. The portrayal of lovestruck youth, family prejudices and a way of life steeped in tradition, draws on the timeless elements of Shakespeare, and just why his plays and characters are still relatable centuries later. Thoroughly researched with elegant prose, Marina Fiorato has made historical fiction accessible for fans and non-fans alike.

The Widow’s Confession

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“Broadstairs, Kent, 1850. Part sea-bathing resort, part fishing village, this is a place where people come to take the air, and where they come to hide…”

Edmund Steele, a nice sort of chap, has fled a failed love affair and arrives at the Parsonage to stay with Theo Hallam. Delphine Beck and her cousin, Julia, have left their London home to save money. The two ladies come originally from New York and Delphine has been exiled by her wealthy family, following a scandal. Miss Warings is an older lady, visiting with her niece, the beautiful Alba. Mr Ralph Benedict is an artist, who has housed his family in a nearby town so he has freedom to work. Mrs Quillian is Theo’s aunt; who establishes herself at the Albion Hotel and then attempts to make the various visitors into a little group, with whom she can arrange pleasant trips. Echoing Separate Tables with the mysterious seaside hotel, the sounds of the ferocious waves, and well-to-do guests harbouring deep, dark secrets, what could possibly go wrong? That is, until a girls body is found on the beach with a mysterious message etched in the sand beneath her, and, although it seems suspicious, the local doctor is quick to dismiss her death as an accident. But more bodies are found – young girls seem to wander into the sea. Spooked by this strange incident, the locals turn against the visitors, whom they accuse of bringing with them bad luck. Can this group of outsiders unite to help solve the murders?

The Widow’s Confession has kicked off a great year for historical fiction (The Hourglass Factory – a tale of suffragettes and the circus – is next on my list). Sophia Tobin’s book balances the right amount of mystery to keep the plot moving. And speaking as someone who tends to shy away from mystery stories, she held my attention throughout. The atmospheric blend of a seaside resort out of season and the suspicion of murder lingering over the community conspires to give even the most skeptical of readers a chill down their spine.

Mrs Hemingway

In the dazzling summer of 1926, Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley travel from their home in Paris to a villa in the south of France. They swim, play bridge and drink gin. But wherever they go they are accompanied by the glamorous and irrepressible Fife. Fife is Hadley’s best friend. She is also Ernest’s lover.

Hadley is the first Mrs. Hemingway, but neither she nor Fife will be the last. Over the ensuing decades, Ernest’s literary career will blaze a trail, but his marriages will be ignited by passion and deceit. Four extraordinary women will learn what it means to love the most famous writer of his generation, and each will be forced to ask herself how far she will go to remain his wife…

Luminous and intoxicating, Mrs. Hemingway portrays real lives with rare intimacy and plumbs the depths of the human heart.

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Lately I’ve been enjoying this trend for historical fiction which has always existed in the publishing world but now it seems to have taken a different direction in which the author writes about a fictional character at the centre of factual events, or places them amongst factual people but this time Naomi Wood has written a fictional account of Ernest Hemingway’s tangled love life. Mrs Hemingway, the clue is in the title, is told from Ernest’s wife, Hadley’s point of view.

Narrated by Hadley, the prose is written in a brief, blunt style which mirror’s her thoughts. The chapter headings are also styled after their location and the date. It reads very much like a report or a treatment for a movie or documentary as opposed, to say, a flowing account of Hadley and Ernest’s life together. Hadley is very much an outsider looking in, even though as Ernest’s wife, she is supposed to be at the centre of things. This style has allowed Wood to radiate Hadley’s paranoia and frustration through the text and the reader feels as stifled and as out of place as she does. I felt as though I was keeping one eye on Hadley….the narrator….and one eye on Ernest and Fife, dreading what was going to happen next.

This will appeal to fans of Z: A Novel which really started this mainstream trend for historical fiction. Many books have followed such as The May Bride and The Winter Garden, incidentally they are new releases. Look out for my review of The May Bride in this week’s issue of The Lady. Mrs. Hemingway does not feel as fluid as Z: A Novel, but it’s a great read nonetheless.